Macbeth is a mystery. Despite being one of Shakespeare’s most revered tragedies, the sole extant text found in the 1623 Folio appears to derive from a Performance version that heavily cuts Shakespeare’s lost manuscript and incorporates stage cues for songs from Thomas Middleton’s The Witch, who may or may not have been the reviser of the play. The conjectured cuts (perhaps as much as a quarter of Shakespeare’s original) and perceived lacunae lend the play considerable interpretative flexibility in terms of both criticism and performance. Such flexibility is apt for a play that revolves around the eponymous character’s interpretation of a tenebrous prophecy. One question we might ask ourselves, for instance, is how many children do the Macbeths have, and where are they now?
This unanswerable question was touched upon in the opening of Everyman Theatre’s production of Macbeth, when the three witches clutched dolls in their hands, although the use of props could equally be regarded as alluding to the play’s obsession with infanticide. The witches dashed these dolls’ brains in during the play’s opening, which anticipated Macbeth’s (played by Steve Smith) gruesome execution at the hands of Macduff (David O’rourke) a couple of hours later. The witches, from the play’s opening to this production’s cyclical ending, were stunning. Sexy and yet terrifying. Childishly mischievous and yet terribly destructive. The audience were mesmerised by the performances of Lorna Prichard, Victoria Walters and Rebecca Baines, who were far steeped in spellbinding characterisation. One must commend the movement work of Emma-Jayne Parker. The moment in which Macbeth visits the sisters was perhaps the highlight of the play, with the supernatural potency of a scene from the great horror flick, The Exorcist, emphasised by some neat lighting and auditory tricks. These witches were present throughout the performance, casting evil eyes over unfolding events and helping with scene transitions (their method of resurrecting corpses was entrancing and, in terms of exits, very useful!). From a scholarly perspective, I was delighted that director Simon H. West retained the Hecate scenes, which are almost always cut, and which add little to the plot, while seeming metrically anomalous in terms of their incorporation of rhyming trochaic octosyllabics. The scene totally worked: it satiated the audience’s desire for as much Weyard Sister action as possible, while showcasing the talents of Sarah Green as the ominous deity; Green also provided the most entertaining interpretation of Lady Macduff I have seen in performance.
Indeed, the supporting cast were all excellent, from Shaun Bryan as the darkly humorous Seyton (a role I once played myself for Everyman), as well as the Porter; to Elin Haf Edwards as Lennox; to Helen Randall, who made an easy transition from the heartwarming Juliet of last year’s Shakespeare production to steely Ross here. As a whole, the leading actors were also solid. James Pritchard made for an eminently likeable Banquo, while Beshlie Thorp was racy, charismatic and manipulative, but also evinced considerable acting chops as the guilt-stricken Lady Macbeth in later scenes. The weather was gruesome, and the actors did marvellously well to adapt their performances to the lashing rain (as well as the chorus of drunken voices in Sophia Gardens), which led to a wonderful moment of comic timing in the line preceding Banquo’s assassination: ‘It will rain tonight’. The rain might have had something to do with one of just two criticisms I have of this production (the other being that some difficulties with diction led to a few of the play’s most famous lines being garbled, though one can understand that having to memorise so many lines can present difficulties in the early stages of a show’s run), in that the concluding fight scenes could do with being tightened up, as some demonstrably air-trenching punches dispelled the theatrical illusion somewhat. I hope the cast and crew won’t begrudge me these relatively minor quibbles.
Thus, the rain seemed to cause problems, while, paradoxically, contributing to the tragic ambience. The set itself was ideal, allowing the actors to circumnavigate on several levels, whilst making the audience wonder what lay beyond the main entrance and its bloody handprints. A sign reading ‘Blood will have blood’ immediately caught the eye, and this production did not shirk away from the macabre, with highlights of morose delectation including the burning of Lady Macduff and her young children, and Thomas Easton chain sawing his way through enemies in the role of Caithness. One could be forgiven for considering the annual open air performances to be family friendly. This Macbeth was anything but; the bashing and dashing of children’s dolls in the opening moments said it all. The director and his cast took risks, and they paid off. It was an engrossing, thoroughly enjoyable performance of high-quality, and I have come to expect nothing less from this company. Now that Everyman Theatre has flirted with the macabre, I wonder if they might take a further risk next year and put on a performance of Shakespeare and George Peele’s Titus Andronicus? Critically derided for centuries, that play has experienced a resurgence, and I can think of few better venues to experience the shocking mutilation of Shakespeare’s heroine (and the subsequent acts of direful revenge), screened by the trees of a darksome forest just beyond the city’s centre. After all: ‘Blood will have blood’, they say.
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